Monday, 16 May 2011

Basket Making for Bairns

Basket by Grace. Photo: Shetland Arts

After I left Shetland, at the beginning of April, Hazel Hughson and Jane Mathews ran a 'drop in' basket making session for bairns at Bonhoga to tie in with Urban Baskets. Here in Hazels own words, (taken from her hastily written email to me) is her report of the event:

"We had 8, the youngest was 3, she pulled through and selected the materials with her granny. They enjoyed it, and some made a few containers.  I had cut vertical slits in Soya Milk cartons and strips of the same material plus strapping tape and other containers. They selected from a pile and wove them in.  I included a cheese box and one little lass made a good effort, curled up the edges. They all took the technique further, a boy wanted to add a handle and worked out a way with wire and tape, so others followed. I really enjoyed it, the bairns were so serious and quiet.  We had no glue or staples, only a couple of hole punches and because it was a bairns event and in the lower cafĂ©, Jane and I were Scissor Prefects ! So all the cuts were carefully planned! " 

Baskets by bairns Photo: Shetland Arts
Teaching small children basket making skills in public spaces is not easy, there might be sharp tools involved and British health and safety laws now make it almost impossible for children in classes to handle anything that might perform as a useful tool. This over protection  is not restricted to children,  the adult students  in my workshop at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts were not allowed to bring in their own tools for  "health and safety" reasons, yet, the only tools I had requested they bring in were  large eyed needles and  all purpose scissors! If students (of any age) are not taught to use tools in supervised classrooms, one can only imagine what will  happen once they are liberated into the XXX rated adult world of DIY stores. The tempting ranks of chain saws, hammer drills, hot air guns, electronic nailers, brush cutters, angle grinders  and their safety manuals, often  badly translated, can surely only lead to carnage.

One of the most memorable TV programmes I have ever seen was one of the Cuisines des Terroirs series  (an Arte production that documents cooking as it is done in family homes in Europe today) and was about the Sami of northern Europe, whose main source of food is the reindeer.  I watched, mesmerized, as a class of under 5’s were given very sharp knives and the bloody, freshly skinned, heads of reindeer to cut up, which they attacked with gusto. Interestingly the children, spattered with blood, showed no revulsion as they did it, and there were no fatalities.

In America there is a growing movement towards providing places where very small children can be taught to use tools. Jaqueline Allwood a glass engraver who works at home surrounded by her small grandchildren gave me this interesting article from the New York Times.

In most cultures where basket making is still practiced daily the children learn by just being around the adults whilst they work, playing with the materials and watching what is going on, learning initially by osmosis, rather than by practice. Now, in many parts of northern Europe and North America there are few homes where the adults regularly  make baskets, so this way of learning is not an option for most children and school and museum sessions are often the only way a child will ever get a chance to make a basket.  As such these sessions are important not only for the preservation of the craft knowledge but also in terms of opening up opportunities for children to work with their hands, something that has almost been written out of school curricula in Britain (and America) at secondary level. Mathew Crawford in his book “The Case for Working with Your Hands” ISBN 978-0-670-91874-4 makes a very strong argument for the re-introduction of practical workshop tuition in schools. Here is an excerpt from the introduction.

“ A decline in tool use  would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent…… What ordinary people once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.”

As a child, like many others, I was a one-person factory with a constant production line of 'things' made out of paper, fabric, wool, twigs and mud. It turns out that making 'things' was obviously what I was put on this earth for but, perhaps, my paternal grandfather, Ernest Walpole, was also instrumental in my ultimate career choice. He made things all the time too, model boats, furniture, toys, lights and kites were just some of his creations and as children we were always encouraged to help him with his making which often involved using tools like saws and hammers. Cane basketry was one of his many hobbies and as a child I helped cut and soak the canes.  If I was lucky, I also got permission to poke the soft damp sticks into the holes on the wooden bases and bend them over. These experiences cannot have been anything other than formative for me.

Photo  from "Pomo Basketmaking" ISBN 0-87961-016-6 by Elsie Allen, taken in Hopland California in 1935 of her mother teaching a young Pomo girl  how to make  a "lattice weave number  4-twine  basket "


  1. Making things with their hands is something my kids all did - and still do, from making props for LARP for my oldest, cards and crochet for my daughter and wood and metalwork for my youngest - he has just been accepted to train as an engineer in the merchant navy, wanting a career working with his hands. They luckily all had the chance both at primary and high school to do practical activities as well as at home. Showing bairns at school how to make stuff is something I am passionate about too, from a rug made from t-shirts to small baskets made from cereal boxes and paper tape. I have had reports from parents of the enthusiasm spreading to making things at home too - good stuff!

  2. All good things to hear Julia. The Teddy Bears Picnic looks as though it was a lot of fun.